What is your Strategic Vision? What are the Strategic Goals? What is in the Strategic Plan? “Strategic” seems to be word to use to indicate that we are talking about The Most Important Thing for an organization. And when asking for specifics, nobody seems to know exactly what it means.
When I was studying Business Administration, we were taught that Strategy is not the most important thing at all. Strategy is just about “How” people believe to achieve things. Strategy is a set of “hypotheses” for ways of achieving the organization’s goal, it is something that will change when hit with reality. We were taught that a Strategic Plan is therefore a ‘contradictio in terminis’: a plan suggests a document that can be executed straightforward from start to end, whereas a strategy, like any general will tell you, needs to change constantly as a battle progresses in unexpected ways.
Strategy is Plural
The Strategy, or better yet “Strategies” inform us “How” the people in the organization believe they can achieve the “What”. But it does not tell us the “What” or even more importantly, the “Why”. So, when people start to talk about the Strategy, I am always more interested into the Vision (“What”) and the Mission (“Why”) first. Rarely I find that the Mission and Vision can be articulated in a clear way, so I suggest to work on that. Because what is the point in trying to find out how to get somewhere, when we are not even clear about where we want to go? Or why we even want to be there?
A reaction I then often get is: “These are all meaningless buzzwords”. Or: “But for us Strategy also includes the What and Why.” Understandable, as nobody likes to be told they are doing it wrong. And to be honest, it is darn difficult to come to a consistent, coherent, shared definition of them. Which is actually why it is so important to create this shared understanding, so we are focusing our collective efforts into the same direction.
In this article I present you a pragmatic way to deal with Mission, Vision and Strategies. A way that is neither right nor wrong, but merely a way to distinguish between Why, What and How that I have found helpful in communicating, aligning, sharing and documenting these Most Important Things for organizations.
Identifying the Mission
The Mission of an organization is the reason to exist: the “Raison d’être”. The organization’s Mission typically never changes. Because when it would, or when it is under stress, it means that the organization is in an existential crisis. And that should not happen (often).
What does happen, is that the exact definition of the Mission is changing, when people are trying to find the best words to describe their mission. I believe this is a very useful thing to do, especially when done collectively for a better shared understand and sense of purpose.
Try to describe a Mission in a paragraph at most, preferably summarized into a single sentence.
Answering these questions may be helpful:
- Why does the organization exist?
- What is the ultimate objective of the organization?
- What is the ultimate impact the organization aims to achieve?
- When is it “mission accomplished”? (Note: not always possible to formulate.)
- Which external changed circumstances would make the Mission and therefore organization irrelevant?
- Which events could happen that put the Mission under stress/doubt?
- Aids Foundation: Stop Aids.
- 510, an Initiative of The Netherlands Red Cross: Make Humanitarian Aid more effective and efficient by using Data and Digital.
Striving for a Vision
The Vision is the ambition of the organization for a specifically defined time-frame, which makes the Mission into a more practical, inspirational and somewhat SMART-defined objective, albeit on a high conceptual level. The Vision places the organization into its (future) context and defines which place the organization ideally will take in it. It should be able to determine if or to what extent a Vision is accomplished, so it becomes actionable for everyday use.
Try to describe the Vision in a single paragraph, one or two sentences are even better. The Vision can come with a more elaborate explanation of how the people in the organization collectively believe the relevant future will unfold and with that the organization’s position is in that future.
An organization’s Vision is typically defined for a period of 3 to 5 years, or even longer, so it does or should not change often. Of course, like with the Mission, the exact wording can be changed as understanding grows, as long as it does not change the shared practical ambition.
Answering these questions may be helpful:
- How do the people in the organization see the relevant future (trends/forces) evolving and which place does the organization take in it?
- What is the ambition for the coming 3, 5, 10 years? (Note: pick 1 time-frame)
- How is the mission practically filled in for a defined future period, beyond a 1 to 3 year scope?
Example: an upcoming supermarket chain may define its Vision as: “We are one of the top-3 supermarkets in The Netherlands by 2025.” Note that this ambition is specific, but still leaves room for useful interpretation: top-3 according to whom? How do we define that?
Now that we understand the Mission and the Vision of an organization, we can start thinking about: how can we accomplish the Vision in line with the Mission? These are the Strategies, the many ways to do so, on many levels in the entire organization.
It is useful to define a small set of high-level strategies for a period of say 3 years, which are specific enough to work with, yet flexible enough to interpret according to specific organizational contexts and for shorter time periods. The Strategies are choices that people make about how they believe they can most effectively and efficiently achieve the Vision. The Strategies must not contradict each other and should reinforce each other. Strategies can be general principles of how the organization intends to operate, but can also be or lead to specific initiatives the organization will take.
High-level strategies, that require organization-wide alignment and/or significant investment, should not change often. However, lower-level strategies can and should change all the time.
Actually, if (details of) strategies do not change often, this is a red flag and could mean the people are blindly executing a waterfall blueprint plan without understanding their context and the Vision they are aiming to achieve, or that they do not have the autonomy to change Strategies as needed for them. Remember the Strategic Plan from the intro of this article?
Answering these questions may be helpful:
- How will the people in the organization achieve the Vision?
- What are the “hypotheses” the people work under which for achieving the Vision?
- Which choices did the organization make to achieve its Vision and consequently, which directions did it choose not to pursue?
High-level strategies can be defined for a longer time-period, say 3 years. These can then be specified or “operationalized” for shorter time periods, say 1 year, and for specific contexts in the organization (projects, departments, functions).
It can and often is helpful to define metrics (objectives, results, OKR) for Strategies, so it becomes possible to measure and report on. Take caution not to let these metrics become goals of their own, as they are in service of achieving higher-level strategies and ultimately the Vision and Mission. And they should support and enhance other Strategies and not work against them.
Example: at 510, an initiative of The Netherlands Red Cross, one high-level Strategy is to work with “professional volunteers” to boost effectiveness. This Strategy is then “operationalized” for various projects and adjustments are made for how to recruit volunteers, how to onboard them, how to get them working effectively and how to keep them happy, etc. And this Strategy may only work because The Netherlands Red Cross as a long and successful history with volunteers (it is primarily a volunteer organization) and amongst others has the brand reputation and identity to make this happen.
It is an Onion
Last, but not least: I find it helpful to think of an organization’s Mission, Vision and Strategies in layers (like Shrek’s onion). So each organizational unit or department, or each project or (“strategic”) initiative can have its own Mission, Vision and Strategies. And these should be aligned with and help achieve the “higher-level” Mission(s), Vision(s) and Strategies.
This means that above questions can be answered on these “lower” levels as well, as long as the people involved find that useful.
For example, the Volunteering Team of The Netherlands Red Cross may identify their Mission: their purpose for being (at work). They then may define their Vision, or what they want to achieve in the coming 5 years and how that boosts achieving the organization’s Vision. And then they may ideate on Strategies to make that happen, start implementing those and adjust based on results. And ideally they align their Strategies with other people(‘s Strategies) throughout the organization, seeking mutual benefits, augmenting each other and sharing efforts.
Good luck with identifying your Mission, defining your Vision and figuring out your Strategies!
This article first appeared on www.diderikvanwingerden.com.